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Bill Thayer

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Section 3

This webpage reproduces a section of
The History of West Point

William F. H. Godson

Philadelphia, 1934

The text is in the public domain.

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Section 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p29  IV

The second ten-year period began unevent­fully. With a great war in progress there was no time nor inclination to make changes at the Military Academy. Major Bowman was still Superintendent. Classes and drills were going on as usual but all eyes were fixed upon the distant battlefields.


In the graduating class of 1863 was a young man who was to have great and beneficial influence at West Point. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.P. S. Michie was destined to be an instructor at his Alma Mater, a department head, author, and friend and guide to his classes. He took a keen interest in athletics and the present stadium is appropriately named after him.1


The ground for Battle Monument was dedicated June 15, 1864, with due ceremonies and an address by Major-General McClellan.2

 p30  Zealous B. Tower, Major of Engineers, reported as Superintendent July 8, 1864, but his tour of duty was brief. He gave way September 8th to George W. Cullum, Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers.

Certain references to West Point in the Annual Report of the Massachusetts Board of Education throw light on the conditions at that time.3

"The United States Military Academy at West Point holds an important relation to the Public Schools and Colleges of the country. It has introduced into them improved methods of instruction, new branches of study, and elevated the standard of attainment in mathematics and applied science. No other institution has so long and happily illustrated the value of physical training to students, and the healthfulness of severe and protracted study when relieved by frequent physical drills and accompanied by a rigid observance of the laws of health as to diet, sleep and regularity of habits."​4

"To West Point belongs the credit of introducing the blackboard into the schools of this country. In none of our higher institutions of learning within my observation is so constant and happy use made of it."​5

". . . at West Point the plan of competition is fully carried out through the entire course . . ."​6

Attention is thus directed to the emphasis upon mathematics, compulsory physical training, individual instruction, competitive spirit, which, together with homogeneous grouping constitute the central idea of West Point training. The reader should not anticipate that it will be concluded that these factors, so useful at West Point, could be utilized to the same extent and in the same way in other institutions.


In June, 1865, Company A, Battalion of Engineers, was ordered to West Point where it remained until August 2, 1867.​7 This was  p31 a step in the plan to have a detachment of troops of all arms of the service at the Academy for the instruction of cadets.

Cadets under discipline April 4, 1865, had all punishment remitted in an order announcing the capture of Richmond, Va.8

It was in 1865 that Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Professor Church published his famous Descriptive Geometry used for so long at West Point.​9 To this distinguished instructor we are indebted for much of the reputation for thoroughness and completeness associated generally with the courses in mathematics at the United States Military Academy.

The classes in all subjects of instruction had been small since 1818 but in the period 1860‑1865 the rule was even more definitely set that ten cadets per class would be normal.​10 Colonel Thayer had set up a scale of marking which was still being used, indeed is still in use to this day.11


A new Regulations was issued in 1866. One innovation which did not last long was the giving of medals and chevrons as a reward for good conduct and excellent scholar­ship.12

Distinguished members of the class of '66 were Frank Soule, Professor of Mathematics, University of California in 1870; and Charles King, General Officer and well-known author of West Point and army stories.

August 28, 1866, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas G. Pitcher, Colonel 44th Infantry, reported as Superintendent. An Act of Congress​13 in July had  p32 changed the rule that the Superintendent must be selected from the Corps of Engineers. To the line officers, the great majority of the army, this constituted an emancipation from a narrow restriction for which there was not sufficient justification.

Life in the Corps of Cadets at this time continued to be much what it had always been and was still to remain. A humorous poem (with sketches)​14 depicts the hardships of the plebe year; the grim humor of traditional pranks; the pleasures of the one furlough;​15 the incidents of summer camp;​16 classroom procedure; and the terrors of the riding hall.17


In 1867 Congress granted a right of way through the reservation at West Point to the Hudson River West Shore Railroad.​18 In this year Captain Boynton, author of the History of West Point from which so much material has been taken, wrote a Guide to West Point.19

 p33  In this little volume of 105 pages a remarkably good picture is given of the post and institution at that time.

This same year marked the turning in of the old muskets in use by the Corps of Cadets and the issue of rifles.21


Government authority was given in 1868 for a road​22 from West Point to Cornwall Landing, New York.​23 Thus railroad and wagon roads were converging upon the Military Academy and its isolation and inaccessibility were disappearing.

Robert Fletcher, D. Sc., Civil Engineer, Professor Emeritus of the Thayer School of Civil Engineering, was a member of the class of '68. He is at present one of the oldest living graduates of the Military Academy and his own MS. (Appendix B to this thesis) illuminates the history of the period in which he was a cadet.​24 At graduation in June 1868 the diplomas were handed to the First Class by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.U. S. Grant, then in command of the Armies of the United States, and soon to be elected President.​25 Another unusual feature of this graduation scene was the presence of Midshipmen from Annapolis who were on a special cruise and were present and took part in the final ceremonies.26

Another member of the class of '68 distinguished outside of the military profession was Richard H. Savage, the author.

The report of the Board of Visitors in June, 1868, was a highly favorable one. Discipline was reported as excellent​27 and the statement made that West Point "challenges competition with similar schools in Europe; it gives to the army and the country,  p34 yearly, numbers of highly educated and high-toned young men, who become eminent and useful in all departments of active life . . ."28


In 1869 an Ordnance detachment at West Point was authorized and the number of enlisted men fixed by the Adjutant General of the Army.

General Sherman was the reviewing officer in June and addressed the graduating class.​29 Among the graduates was Arthur S. Hardy to become noted later as an author.30

In 1869 there appeared in print a thoughtful study of the possibility of applying West Point methods in other institutions of learning.​31 The author listed distinctive features of the Military Academy as "the daily recitation"; (Page 2) the daily marking by the instructor (upon a scale previously described in this thesis); and the fact that the instructor "each Saturday transfers his marks to a printed blank . . . exposed . . . to view . . . every week in every department . . ." (Page 7). He notes further that "the sections do not remain the same from week to week . . . (weekly) transfers are made . . . men rising or sinking . . ." (Pages 7‑8). He continues, "the number of instructors is probably larger in proportion to the number taught at West Point than in any other institution in the country . . ." (Page 14).

The author seems to feel that even if the West Point system is not applicable to other colleges (by reason of inability to hire enough instructors for example) it might be to the advantage of other colleges to study the system.

His paper makes such study possible. It also gives us a clear understanding that the methods set up by Colonel Thayer, and still in use, were functioning in 1869.

 p35  1870

West Point, as a national show place, was beginning to receive war trophies. The Secretary of War ordered the transfer of 50 captured bronze guns to West Point for the purpose of constructing a monument.​32 The costly and fine looking Administration Building was completed.

Distinguished in later life were two members of the class to graduate in June, 1870. Winfield S. Chaplin​33 became Chancellor of Washington University in 1871; and Edward S. Holden became President of the University of California in 1885.34

The Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy began publishing annual reports in 1870 and have thus added a wealth of authoritative statistical material to that which would otherwise have been meagre. In their first report Simon Willard, class of 1815, is mentioned as the oldest graduate present at the graduation exercises. Brevet-Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer was elected President of the Association.

The question raised in 1857 by the Board of Visitors was made the subject of a special report by an Inspector October 20, 1870​35 and it was stated that West Point having raised the standard of admission "increased for the time being the ratio of preliminary rejections . . . (but will) . . . reduce the ratio of subsequent discharges . . . a result beneficial not only to the Government but to the individuals concerned."

The Board of Visitors this year reported that​36 "it seems . . . worthy of inquiry whether written examinations might not be . . . introduced (instead of the present) purely oral method."37  p36 This same Board remarked upon discipline that "twenty-five years ago West Point was substantially separate from the outside world . . . But all this has changed. West Point is now, or fast becoming, a place of fashionable resort . . ." A return to stricter discipline was recommended.38


Thomas H. Ruger, Colonel, 18th infantry, reported as Superintendent September 1, 1871. The year was otherwise unevent­ful.


Professors Michie and Kendrick visited colleges​39 and universities in the United States to see how the work was being conducted elsewhere. Surely the Military Academy did not merit then (nor later) the statement of Andrew S. Draper​40 "the military and naval academies are wholly subject to the secretaries of war and of the navy and no distinct schoolman carries the light of his guild into the recesses of their affairs."

Hartman Bache of the class of 1818 was the oldest graduate to return to the graduation exercises in June.​41 Among the graduates was Paul B. Malone, distinguished General Officer and well-known author of West Point and army stories.

The Board of Visitors this year commented favorably upon the course of instruction.​42 "The great merit of the course of instruction," he said, "and discipline taken as a whole, is that it  p37 cultivates in an eminent degree the virtues of obedience and self-denial, the sentiment of honor, and the sense of duty."43

The second decade in the second fifty years of West Point's history thus drew to a close. Beginning with the Civil War in progress it weathered the attendant demand for officer material without sacrificing its reputation as a strong educational institution.44

The Author's Notes:

1 Among Professor Michie's literary contributions was Life and Letters of General Upton. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Upton, noted military author himself, graduated in 1861. The second chapter of his book gives a good picture of cadet life. Upton's letters (to his sisters) reveal him as sincerely religious. He was a faithful student (page 21) and being enthusiastically patriotic, was greatly interested in the question of secession. An outstanding memory is the visit of the Prince of Wales, from England, who reviewed the Corps of Cadets on horseback. (p23.)

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2 Battle Monument (one of the most impressive of its kind) stands at the northern end of the campus, near the flag pole, and over­looking the most beauti­ful and celebrated view of the Hudson River. It consists of a tall shaft with an ornate base and surmounted by a traditional figure of Victory. Cadet humor, no respecter of persons, or of monuments, has (since the erection of the monument) ascribed to this figure alone of all women the quality of steadfastness. In reply to the jesting query of a lovelorn upperclassman "How are they all, Mister?", a plebe is expected to reply "They are all fickle, Sir." The dialog continues: Q.: "What, all fickle?" A.: "No, sir. All fickle but one, Sir." Q.: "And who may she be, Mister?" A.: "The figure on Battle Monument, Sir."

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3 Twenty-seventh Annual Report of the (Massachusetts) Board of Education, 1864, 238 pages, plus appendices, pp90‑124.

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4 Ibid., p90.

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5 Ibid., p98.

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6 Ibid., p116.

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7 Hodges, H. F., Roster of Service with Engineer Troops.

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8 Post Orders, Vol. 6, p321.

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9 Centennial U. S. M. A., p243. Professor Church had published previously a Calculus in 1842, an Analytical Geometry in 1851 and a Trigonometry in 1857.

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10 Centennial of U. S. M. A., p231.

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11 Ibid., p231. (A report by Colonel Tillman, once head of the Chemistry Department, later Superintendent.) The scale: 3.0 perfect, 2.5 good, 2.0 indifferent, 1.5 bad, 1.0 very imperfect, 0.0 complete failure. (There were cadets then, as there are probably students everywhere now, who would hand in answers without supporting figures. They were taught that only two marks were possible, i.e., 3.0 or 0.0. The emphasis in instruction therefore, then as now, was upon a correct plan carefully followed, and fully shown on paper. G.)

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12 Ibid., p237.

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13 Act of Congress, July 13, 1866.

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14 By a Cadet (C. W. Whipple, '68), West Point Life: A Poem.

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15 Only one summer off in the four years is still the rule. G.

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16 An annual encampment is still the rule. G.

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17 Mounted instruction continues to be one of the hardships of cadet life. All men do not take the same interest in horseman­ship; some never learn a strong dependable seat, others never learn to get the best out of their mounts. As an instructor in equitation at West Point I have seen the first riding lesson of the year. In a less serious narrative this remark might be introduced with the formula "believe it or not." The horses actually sense the inaptitude of the new riders, almost at once, and reliable old Cavalry horses prick up their ears, and kick up their heels, this one day in the year. G.

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18 Act of Congress, December 14, 1867.

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19 Captain Boynton's Guide gave a brief history of the post and a description of it in 1867. From it we learn that there were four Companies in the military organization; cadets lived two in a room; the barracks were now heated; gas light was in use; and the cadets had daily access to baths (p39). The Ordnance Museum existed (p40). The Riding Hall was in use (p45). The Chapel was in the east end of the Academic Building; and the Superintendent had his office in the Library (p44). A lower pathway along the river to Gee's Point was called "Chain Battery Walk"​20 (p46). Reveille was at 5 A.M. and Taps at 10 P.M. (p57). The Corps of Cadets numbered 250 (p60). Summer camps were held as usual (pp62‑4). Recitations were conducted in the traditional way (pp67‑71).

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20 This delightful scenic walk to the scene of the Great Chain (see Captain Boynton's book) changed its name and became known as Flirtation Walk. No explanation seems necessary but a quaint tradition sprang up. To be found nowhere in print it is nevertheless well known to the cadets of successive classes and refers to "Kissing Rock." The story, dating back to an Indian legend of Revolutionary days, goes that if a maiden were to refuse her lover a kiss under this great overhanging rock it would fall upon them. When I personally inspected this rock, December 25, 1933, it had not fallen. G.

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21 Post Orders, Vol. 7, p92.

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22 General Orders No. 60, Adjutant General's Office, Washington.

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23 Cornwall lies nearest to West Point on the north, Highland Falls on the south. G.

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24 Doctor Fletcher was born in 1847, entered the Military Academy August, 1864. He mentions the courses which he pursued. See Appendix B.

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25 The following November. G.

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26 Post Orders, Vol. 7, p133, June 15, 1868.

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27 Report of the Board of Visitors U. S. M. A., 1869, p39.

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28 Ibid., p42.

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29 Pamphlet, U. S. M. A. Library.

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30 A statistical study of the lines, other than military, success­fully followed by graduates of West Point is to be found as an Appendix. Individual cases are mentioned in the narrative wherever they have been discovered. G.

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31 R. P. Keep (Yale), "The System of Instruction at West Point, Can it be Employed in our Colleges?" An article in the New Englander (magazine) for January, 1869. No. CVI.

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32 General Orders No. 56, Adjutant General's Office, Washington, D. C.

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33 W. F. Norris, Class of '72, one of the oldest living graduates, writes of Chaplin as follows: "In bidding me goodbye (at graduation time) he said, 'Now Norris it has been a doubtful question whether you or I was the homeliest man at West Point, but now I am going there will be no question about it.' " Mr. Norris goes on to say, "Chaplin was good if not handsome." (For full letter, dated January 25, 1934, see Appendix C.)

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34 E. S. Holden was later (1902) Librarian U. S. M. A. (Appendix D).

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35 Report included in Board of Visitors Reports, Ac. No. 167302, U. S. M. A. Library.

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36 Report of Board of Visitors U. S. M. A., June 15, 1870.

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37 The final oral examination, inherited from European universities by our own, was still in use at West Point but already seriously challenged and doomed to go.

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38 This finding of the Board in 1870 brought to my mind the address delivered by Colonel R. C. Richardson, Commandant of Cadets at West Point, upon the occasion of the annual West Point Banquet in Philadelphia, March 17, 1933. Colonel Richardson said in substance just what the Board said about new distractions coming in, new social order making a strict discipline difficult to obtain, but possibly increasingly necessary. The parallel between these two statements indicates that an institution as conservative as West Point will (and possibly should) always resist the more violent changes in our society, manners, and customs. But the means of doing this should always be placed in the hands of the best instructors available who, like Colonel Richardson, will be able to accomplish the desired end. G.

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39 Post Orders, Vol. 8, November 8, 1872, p125.

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40 Draper, A. S., American Education, 1909.

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41 Report, Board of Visitors, June 14, 1872. In this report is also to be found a list of distinguished persons after whom the annual encampments at West Point had been named.

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42 Ibid., p797.

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43 No word here of personal success or money making. See the letter from Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Farman, Appendix I.

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44 It is probable that the brief comprehensive review of conditions in 1864 given by Dr. Robert Fletcher may be taken to epitomize fairly the entire period. (See Appendix B.) G.

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